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Image courtesy of city of Golden, Colorado

An effort to allow Tri-State Generation & Transmission into the rural broadband business, albeit as something of a “middle man,” failed in the Senate Local Government Committee on a party-line vote Tuesday.

The lack of high-speed broadband to rural Colorado has vexed lawmakers for years. It’s meant that school kids can’t do homework at home without every family member shutting down their computers or phones, or that rural businesses are left behind. The General Assembly has found ways to boost the funding for rural broadband, but the infrastructure issue still needs work. 

Last year, a carefully crafted deal among rural electric co-ops, known as Senate Bill 19-107, would allow those co-ops to lease so-called “dark fiber” to broadband providers. That would expand the availability of badly-needed broadband service to parts of rural Colorado that are still waiting for the 21st century — or, at least, the state's booming economy — to arrive.

Dark fiber is unused fiber-optic lines that a company, such as an electric utility, may build to add capacity but aren’t using. It can then be leased to broadband providers.

Some of the utilities that have that extra dark fiber are already getting into the broadband provider business. The idea of allowing electric utilities to expand into broadband isn’t a new one.

More than two decades ago, the Southeast Colorado Power Association, based in LaJunta, started offering high-speed Internet through fiber-optic lines through its SECOM affiliate.

More recently, in 2016, the electric co-op Delta-Montrose Electric Association broadened its reach into rural high-speed broadband on the Western Slope, with a subsidiary known as Elevate.

Tri-State, through its member co-ops, provides electric transmission along its fiber lines to about 70% of the state, according to Senate Bill 20-128 sponsor Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose.

Coram’s bill would allow Tri-State to lease its dark fiber to its co-ops, providing what’s known as the middle mile.

But the Senate committee said no, with Democrats who worked on last year’s deal claiming it would give Tri-State a better deal than was provided to the co-ops that negotiated the 2019 bill.

Part of the issue is redundancy, that the leases would provide broadband service as a backup in case a single fiber line was cut somewhere.

To that point, Commissioner Hillary Cooper of San Miguel County pointed out that four fiber outages in her area temporarily wiped out the county’s 911 service last year. Those outages forced the closure of many businesses as well, she said. “It’s a big public safety concern,” she told the committee.

Colorado Counties Inc.’s Eric Bergman said the deal crafted under SB 19-107 was a big success, save for the omission of Tri-State.

But Tri-State had a chance to be part of the SB 107 deal, Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, pointed out, and chose not to be.

The deal from SB 107 primarily applied to retail electric co-ops, not to the wholesaler, which is Tri-State's role. Under SB 107, an electric utility cannot give preference to one retail broadband supplier over another with regard to leasing fees or pole access, can charge "just and reasonable" pole fees, and cannot refuse authorization to a commercial broadband supplier unless the electric co-op has insufficient "dark fiber" capacity.

The bill also prohibited electric utilities from providing direct retail broadband service, but can do so through an affiliate, which is how Elevate and SECOM operate.

Tri-State wants to be part of Colorado’s broadband solution, said Jack Johnson of the Southeast Colorado Power Association, which operates SECOM. No one from Tri-State testified on the bill, although several other witnesses said their companies were negotiating with Tri-State.

Whether the issue is dead for 2020 is up in the air. Bridges, who was involved in the 2019 bill, said he would work with Coram to find a way to work Tri-State into the SB 107 deal. It’s a matter of fairness, Bridges said.

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